Sean Beckwith: The plight of Shaun White
January 16, 2018
If Shaun White is the Tony Hawk of snowboarding, then why isn't White revered like Hawk, a.k.a. the Michael Jordan of skateboarding? For those of you who missed the Winter X Games come early, the U.S. Grand Prix in Snowmass certainly felt like an A-list event.
Aspen local Alex Ferreira all but guaranteed his spot on the U.S. Olympic team with a second-place finish in the men's ski halfpipe, an honor in itself considering the amount of talent that will be left off the four-man roster.
Two 17-year-old snowboarders made noise — and one made the Olympic roster — in Red Gerard and Maddie Mastro. Gerard's men's slopestyle win clinched the Olympic spot, and Mastro's podium finish put her closer to Pyeongchang.
However, it was the Flying Tomato who won the weekend. White put down the third perfect 100 ever recorded in snowboard halfpipe history. (White did it at X Games Aspen 2012 and American female snowboarder Chloe Kim landed a flawless run at the 2016 Grand Prix in Park City, Utah.) The internet reacted accordingly with heaps of praise for the most decorated snowboarder in the history of the sport.
The thing is, though, he wasn't the fan favorite competing. That distinction arguably went to Danny Davis, noted member of the Friends Crew. If you're not acquainted with the Friends Crew, it's a group of snowboarders who — almost in a response to White's massive mainstream popularity — formed an alliance to bring snowboarding back to its punk rock-inspired, rebellious and familial roots.
Instead of training on your own personal-sponsored and private halfpipe like White has done twice before, it's about camaraderie and celebrating snowboarding with people who share a common obsession. The closest analogy I can think of is a surfer spending all his time on one of those man-made, wave-creating machines over waiting for Mother Nature to deliver.
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Jealousy also could be a factor as to why most snowboarders I know don't praise the snow White shreds, but an inside perception that White can at times act above the sport may contribute to that notion, as well, although he does give back in the form of multiple charities, including one under his own name. And you can't overlook how competitive he is. White having his own halfpipe probably was more about being able to dial in tricks than the showy display of self-promotion that it came off as.
Mention Hawk to a skateboarder and, while most have their own personal favorite, they will acknowledge him as the sport's GOAT. White is definitely the best competition snowboarder of all time, but the average snowboarder doesn't live in a halfpipe. This might be true for skateboarders who prefer a ledge outside of a library to pads and pipes, but the difference is Hawk's popularity helped make skateboarding the favored sport of America's disgruntled youth.
Snowboarding has been falling in popularity for a few years now. The New York Times chronicled this trend in 2016 and the Durango Herald had a similar piece in 2013, which incidentally was a year after White landed his first perfect 100 run.
White's rise to superstardom didn't cause snowboarding to fade, but it has the unfortunate fact of coinciding with it.
I don't have a favorite snowboarder of all time, but if you're going to force a 31-year-old man to choose it'd probably be the guys involved in "The Art of FLIGHT" or Shaun Palmer, solely for Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarder, the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater snowboarding spinoff. (Pro Skater spinoff games ranked: Shaun Palmer snowboarding then Matt Hoffman's Pro BMX, followed by Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer. I would buy a Shaun White's SSX game tomorrow.)
There could be multiple reasons why snowboarding hasn't flourished during White's ascension: Skiers finally learned how to dress after snowboarding and went back to skiing; learning to snowboard is harder than learning to ski and no one wants to go through a baptism by catwalk; they successfully gentrified good snowboarding hip-hop (dubstep/EDM) and went back to skiing. Or it could be due to other factors like "Flying Tomato" possibly being the worst nickname for the best athlete of his sport ever.
Imagine Michael Phelps' career arc if we called him the "Swimming Stallion" or something dumb like that. There also was the poor decision to try to bring skinny jeans to snowboarding. Skateboarders can rock that look because you're supposed to wear jeans while skating. If you wear jeans on the slopes you're asking to be called a gaper — not that anyone would mistake White for a gaper — but you have to be pretty damn good to pull off that look. Remember when Michael Jordan rocked a Hitler mustache in those Hanes' commercials? It's like that but not as bad.
The silver lining for the golden boy is, with snowboarding's popularity declining, the sport could naturally go back to its outlaw days when shred sticks were banned and it was thought of as a fad for ill-led miscreants.
When White dons the red, white and blue in Korea, I'll be rooting for him because I'm an American, but, in what could be his last Olympics, it doesn't feel like he's getting a send-off worthy of his career.
Sean Beckwith is a copy editor at The Aspen Times. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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